Latest figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) indicate that levels of seasonal flu are increasing across the UK.
Vaccine uptake among those in 'at risk' groups remains low with just 40 per cent of such people under 65 taking up the offer of vaccination. Everyone over the age of 65 is entitled to the vaccine and uptake in this age group is 67 per cent.
The two main strains of flu circulating are Influenza B and H1N1 (2009) 'swine' flu. A small proportion of severe cases have been seen, particularly in people under the age of 65. This is due to the fact that H1N1 is more likely to affect younger people than the elderly, as was seen during the pandemic.
To date, 17 people with flu across the UK are known to have died since the flu season began in October this year. At least half of those who have died were in a clinical 'at risk' group for vaccination. Vaccination status is known for 14 of these 17 patients, none of whom had received this year's seasonal vaccine.
In addition, 17 people have this season received ECMO (Extra-Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) treatment in a UK hospital following lung failure, including four pregnant women.
Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, said: "It's not unusual to see this level of flu activity at this time of the year but, due to the fact that the H1N1 swine flu is one of the predominant strains circulating at the moment, we are seeing more severe illness in people under the age of 65 than we would usually see.
"Flu can be an extremely serious illness for pregnant women, the elderly and those with other underlying conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases and those who have weakened immune systems.
"Flu vaccination offers the best protection for those at high risk from seasonal flu and we urge all those in these 'at risk' groups - including pregnant women and healthcare workers - to get themselves vaccinated as soon as possible. It's not too late and it could save lives.
"For most people seasonal flu is not life threatening and usually lasts seven to ten days. The best advice is to rest, drink plenty of fluids and take pain relievers such as paracetamol. But anyone displaying severe symptoms, particularly those in vulnerable groups should seek medical advice. The Department of Health has recently confirmed guidance on the use of antiviral drugs for the management of 'at risk' flu patients and it is hoped that this will help reduce the number of severe cases we are seeing."
1. Throughout the flu season the HPA published weekly figures on flu and flu-like illness on a Thursday afternoon via its weekly flu report. To view the latest report, visit here.
2. The flu H1N1 (2009) virus, formerly known as 'swine flu', is now one of the group of seasonal flu viruses circulating around the world. Following a pandemic, it is often the case that the pandemic strain becomes the most common seasonal strain of influenza the next flu season, so it in not surprising to see H1N1 (2009) circulating this winter.
3. This year's seasonal flu vaccine includes a H1N1 2009 component so that people who are vulnerable are protected against all the circulating strains. For the first time the seasonal vaccine is being offered to pregnant women as they were disproportionally affected by the H1N1 (2009) strain during the pandemic and are more at risk of serious complications.
4. The seasonal flu vaccine is recommended for those aged 65 or over and those with the following conditions, regardless of age: chronic respiratory disease, heart disease, renal disease and chronic liver disease, diabetes requiring insulin or oral hypoglycaemic drugs, immunosuppression. Vaccination is also recommended for pregnant women, those living in long-stay residential care homes, health care workers and carers.
5. Symptoms of seasonal flu include sudden onset of fever, cough as well as sore throat, aching muscles and joints. Antivirals are drugs given to high risk patients who become ill with seasonal influenza. They are most effective if taken within 48 hours of onset and may help limit the impact of some symptoms and reduce the potential for serious complications. They are also used in some situations where it is important to help prevent people from getting influenza.
Health Protection Agency